Navigating the Prayer Book Debate

A hot topic at General Convention (GC) is whether or not to begin the  process of revising the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The resolution being debated is A068, "Plan for the Revision of the Book of Common Prayer," proposing a time of exploration, resource gathering, and church-wide listening over the next triennium.  The cost over the next three years for this work is projected as being just under $2 million. This would fund only the first three years of a projected 12-15 year process

The initial question may be, "Why do we need to revise the Prayer Book?" Many people at GC are asking the same question while others feel this process should have begun nine or twelve years ago. Theology in The Episcopal Church (TEC) deepens and widens with every year that passes. We believe in the continued revelation of God and understand our inability to fully comprehend the vastness of God. That's not to say we don't have core beliefs, rather, together we continue to explore and plumb the depths of those beliefs and how they apply to our lives.

Almost forty years have passed since our current prayer book came into use by approval of GC. Think about your lifetime of faith. How much has your understanding of God changed over the past forty years? How has your understanding of the divine shifted and your relationship with Christ matured? The church is a living being and we collectively mature and change as we live together in ministry and liturgy.

Over the past forty years, our theological maturity has been challenged and furthered by the Collect for Mission in the current BCP (pg. 101),

"Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen."

Jesus spread his arms wide, wide enough to embrace the whole world. The question before us is, "As the Body of Christ in the world, has the church done likewise?" As we continue to have this conversation, we find ways that we have been exclusive, intentionally or otherwise. This question has pushed us into difficult conversations about race and reconciliation, the church's complicity in sexual abuse and harassment, our failure to accommodate people of other languages, what it means to be open and affirming of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and the barriers we create for people with disabilities.

Those wanting prayer book revision have pressed GC to consider how our current liturgy fails to reflect our current theology. Increasingly over the past forty years, many in TEC have highlighted the feminine aspects of God, beginning with Genesis 1:26, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." The image of God is both male and female but our prayer book uses exclusively male pronouns in reference to God. Revisionists of the prayer book are asking for, "expanded and inclusive language," to better represent the full nature of God.

Testimony at one of the committee hearings by a deputy in a wheelchair provided another example of how the prayer book may be unwelcoming in its language. She challenged the committee and visitors to consider what it is like for her to read or hear every week, "All stand." It may seem like a small and insignificant instruction, but she and others like her are left out. She cannot participate as the prayer book instructs or directs.

Other considerations for prayer book revision include new marriage rites, race and reconciliation work, theological reflection on immigration, and reinforcement of our responsibilities as stewards of God's creation. These are topics of great theological importance that are being lived and worked out across TEC. Revisionists would like to see our Book of Common Prayer, the thing that unites us, better reflect this theology.

A good way to think of the revisionist's perspective is that they greatly believe in the Episcopal tenant, "Praying shapes believing," and they want a prayer book that will help further shape our belief and widen our understanding of God. They want something that can be approved for use by all of TEC that better reflects our current beliefs and might guide us further into new avenues of belief and understanding.

Connected to this argument by revisionists is the issue of evangelism and of retention. The prayer book often is the first entry point into TEC for newcomers. The prayer book, as it stands now, is not an accurate reflection of who we are and what we believe. Or a newcomer enters the church because of public witnesses of faith on the part of Episcopalians (i.e. community service, wedding ceremonies, activist work) but they come to worship and are surprised to find a liturgy that doesn't fully match what they've witnessed on the streets, as it were. One member of GC shared a story of losing new members because the liturgy didn't reflect the evangelism they had encountered and the newcomers said they felt they had been misled.

From the House of Bishops, a few voices rose to speak in excitement for the process as having the potential to further deepen our theology. One bishop called it, "the adventure of revision." Another spoke to the trust she feels for church leadership to invite many voices and perspectives into this process to generate liturgies that would fully embrace the diversity of our church.

Revisionists believe the projected full overall cost of $8-9 million is warranted because the mission work done by Episcopalians pours out of the work, the liturgy, done inside the church. We come to church and gather around the table to be renewed, restored, informed, and transformed to be disciples of Christ in the world. The sermon and Christian formation classes are important but aren't nearly as influential in the lives of most Episcopalians as the prayers of the Eucharist. Revisionists want these prayers to better communicate the fullness of our calling.

But the price tag is a major argument against revision in the eyes of the dissenters. On the floors of both the House of Deputies (HOD) and the House of Bishops (HOB), members of GC argued that these monies would be better spent on mission and outreach. One bishop argued that our Presiding Bishop has been challenging the church to be more outward looking through evangelism and outreach and prayer book revision feels like an about-face to an inward focus. These dissenters feel this process is too self-indulgent and not good stewardship of our financial resources.

Another bishop wondered if the prayer book revision wouldn't be "work avoidance." This same bishop wondered if we would end up with a "shiny new book to put in empty pews." The dissenters see how desperately God needs laborers in the vineyard and worry that this revision process would be too great of a distraction from that work. Revision takes a good bit of money but even more manpower and attention. Dissenters believe we should be better stewards of our time and energy as well.

Those who oppose a wholesale revision are not all opposed to the liturgical needs of the church to better reflect our expanding theology. On the floor of both houses, dissenters argued the efficacy of trial liturgies to meet some of these needs. The hope is that these liturgies would be thoughtfully crafted and would contribute to a later revision of the prayer book. They could also provide for greater diversity and more liturgical options for our worship life together. A concern among revisionists about this option is that trial liturgies often are approved with the caveat that bishops may decide if and how they are used in their respective dioceses, thus not being accessible to all.

An argument from dissenters in the HOD that came up repeatedly was about equal access for our non-English speaking members to the current prayer book. The current Spanish translation of the 79 Prayer Book is very inadequate. Apparently, when the book was translated, it was done so with a more literal, line-by-line approach. The translation did not take into account how Spanish is actually spoken or written, making for a stilting and cumbersome liturgical resource.  Many dissenters are afraid a wholesale prayer book revision would divert too much attention and resources away from the much-needed work of a usable Spanish translation. This is a matter of justice and equal access for all Episcopalians.

From the floor of the HOB came a concern of an entirely different nature. Several bishops rose to speak of their distrust in the leadership of the church. They said that they had little confidence that a good revision could be accomplished by the church at this time that would fully meet the needs of our many members. A couple of them expressed concern that the committee that would be convened to work on revision would not adequately reflect the diversity of the church. On the whole, most members of the GC would like to see revision work done by a group representative of the church, i.e. have members of many races and people, gender identity, sexual orientation, languages, ages, and physical abilities. Some dissenters do not believe a revision process at this time would take all voices into consideration.

At the heart of the debate are questions of identity. Who are we? Does our worship shape our missional work or does that work shape our worship? Are we capable of crafting liturgy that can reflect our great diversity? Is it ok for our liturgy to not reflect the full breadth and depth of our theology because our work outside of Sunday mornings is the bigger witness to who we are? How do we best manage our shared resources to collectively act as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement?